ULFA comes around

The winding down of a 32-year-long low-grade armed struggle in Assam is on course. Following the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by United Liberation Front of Asom chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, the central government and the Assam government have signed a ‘suspension of operations' agreement with ULFA — what has been termed a “gentleman's agreement.” This is the first time ULFA has signed an agreement with any government and the expectation is that a substantive political dialogue will follow soon. ULFA's pragmatic approach, especially with regard to its longstanding but clearly untenable demand for “sovereignty” for Assam, has to be appreciated — even if it is clear that a combination of circumstances seemed to give it little choice. The central government's calibrated approach over the past few years was aided in no small measure by the tenacity, patience, and resolve shown by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who has led the State imaginatively over the past decade. The talking process took off once Mr. Rajkhowa and his associates landed in Indian custody, after being apprehended by the Bangladesh security forces: for this, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina needs to be given full credit.

Nevertheless, the peace process remains under the shadow of an unrelenting Paresh Barua, ULFA's ‘commander-in-chief' who is believed to be based, along with some cadres, in the unruly international border between Myanmar and China. However insignificant the threat they hold out may seem at this point, these elements will need to be brought round, or overcome. Trans-border linkages have aided and abetted militancy in the region for too long. The government also needs to be wary of a host of other insurgent groups in Assam and elsewhere in the region who may be biding their time; this calls for vigilance against opportunistic terror but also the avoidance of overreaction. Genuine reconciliation will require a far-sighted strategy of taking everyone along by ensuring the region's development, more effective legal protection for Assam's indigenous people, and generous leeway over issues of land and resources. The early efforts at rehabilitating some 600 ULFA cadre in special camps known as “Nabanirman Kendras” augur well for the process — although the militants' refusal to turn in their weapons does pose a problem. The agenda for the talks between ULFA and the central and State governments needs to be worked out meticulously — with due weight given to the popular perception that persistent under-development in the face of the region's rich resources is the outcome of a policy of discrimination and facilitating exploitation by outsiders. The best chance yet for enduring peace in Assam must not be squandered.

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